Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Don't Be So Hard on Yourself

The latest in psycho research contains more than a few grains of truth. As offshoot of cognitive therapy it tells us that we make ourselves depressed by engaging in endless and mindless bouts of self-criticism. We find fault with ourselves. We punish ourselves for our flaws, foibles and errors. We ruminate over them and paralyze ourselves.

So far so good. We cripple ourselves with guilt. We take our errors and fold them into a narrative where we are unworthy, almost criminal, needing punishment. Some people go to confession, but most go to therapy… to identify their faults, to seek out their infantile origins and to punish themselves.  Their therapists induce them to do some penance, pretending that if they punish themselves sufficiently for their bad intentions they will naturally go out and do the right thing.

The researchers are surely correct to see that many of us are wallowing in self-criticism. They do not recognize that therapy itself produced this bad mental habit. Therapy has imbued us with guilt and has taught us that self-criticism is a good thing. People did not just wake up one morning and start to self-flagellate. They did it because they were told that it would make them better people. What else do you think it means to punish yourself for your white privilege?

Moreover, the ambient culture tells us that it is a good thing to criticize everything in sight. Especially everything about America. We go to school and learn to criticize the nation and our civilization. We learn to find fault with America, to punish ourselves for the privileges we gain from being American. If you think that the psycho tendency to self-criticize is occurring in a vacuum, you are missing the point.

How many university classes emphasize America’s crimes and faults, its repressive and oppressive actions? How many classes teach that America has done good things, has achieved great things and has earned its position atop the world’s status hierarchy? Not very many. 

In the meantime, let’s examine the research, via the New York Times. The story begins with the observation that we give more weight to our mistakes because it is the first step toward correcting them. Thus, self-criticism can be adaptive:

In other words: We’ve evolved to give more weight to our flaws, mistakes and shortcomings than our successes.

“Self-criticism can take a toll on our minds and bodies,” said Dr. Richard Davidson, founder and director of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he also teaches psychology and psychiatry.

“It can lead to ruminative thoughts that interfere with our productivity, and it can impact our bodies by stimulating inflammatory mechanisms that lead to chronic illness and accelerate aging,” he said….

“Our brains equip us with a mechanism to monitor our mind and our behavior,” Dr. Davidson said, so that when we make errors, we are able to notice the mistake. “In order to recover, we first must notice that a mistake has occurred,” he said.

Of course, people who never make mistakes are arrogant and narcissistic. Recognizing your mistakes can easily be conjoined with humility.

Davidson believes that if get too wrapped up in self-criticism we end up thinking that we are worthless. He calls it a shame spiral, though it bespeaks an effort to deal with shame by using the mechanisms of guilt culture: that is, self-punishment. After all, self-criticism is a form of self-punishment:

And it’s that type of self-criticism that can have measurably destructive effects, including symptoms of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, negative self-image and, in a particularly vicious twist, decreased motivation and productivity, according to a study published in the Journal of Psychotherapy Integration. Another study, published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, found that self-criticism leads people to becoming preoccupied with failure.

Basically, beating yourself up for finishing only three of the five items on your to-do list is going to make you less likely to finish those last two items — and yet we’re programmed to fall into that pattern.

The solution, as offered by psycho professionals, involves what they call “self-compassion.” As always, therapists imagine that engineering the right feelings will solve all of our problems. In truth, if we solve the self-criticism problem we will feel better, but focusing on compassion is not likely to be very successful. 

The reason: compassion involves charitable feelings for those who need help… but who cannot help themselves. Will you really cure your self-critical tendency by thinking of yourself as someone who needs help but cannot help himself?

The researchers believe that self-compassion involves self-acceptance, but surely the term “compassion” has nothing to do with acceptance.

The Times continues:

We’re evolutionarily predisposed to nitpick at our failings, yet doing so has the opposite of the intended effect.

The solution? It’s called self-compassion: the practice of being kind and understanding to ourselves when confronted with a personal flaw or failure, according to Dr. Kristin Neff, associate professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin.

“Research shows that the No. 1 barrier to self-compassion is fear of being complacent and losing your edge,” Dr. Neff said. “And all the research shows that’s not true. It’s just the opposite,” meaning that self-compassion can lead to greater achievement than self-criticism ever could.

In fact, several studies have shown that self-compassion supports motivation and positive change. In a 2016 study researchers found that “self-compassion led to greater personal improvement, in part, through heightened acceptance,” and that focusing on self-compassion “spurs positive adjustment in the face of regrets.”

If we make a mistake we normally work to correct it. Those of us who refuse to correct it in the present correct it in our minds. And yet, the mind’s self-correction counts as a dress rehearsal. If you do not apologize to the person you offended you are wasting your time ruminating over how best to do it. The bottom line is: apologize directly and in person. If you require a mental dress rehearsal, OK. But, the proof is in the action, not in your feeling compassionate toward yourself for having erred. You should feel ashamed of yourself for having erred. And the shame should be so painful that you will be spurred to apologize. But that assumes that you do not believe that you feel sorry for yourself for having insulted or offended whomever.

The more time you spend upping your quota of self-compassion the more time you will be avoiding the task at hand. True enough, some of the advice on offer can be helpful. If you criticize yourself all the time why not shift your focus and do a kind deed for someone else.

Focusing on the right feeling distracts you from planning the right action. It might be to apologize for an error. It might be to train better, to do more homework, to reorganize your time, to make and keep plans, to focus more intently on a task at hand.


Sam L. said...

Ya gotta get ON with your life. Navel-gazing doesn't help.

Christopher B said...

I'd say that what's often missing, and what self-compassion tries to remedy in a round-a-bout way, is the feeling of lack of agency on the part of many people when it comes to correcting mistakes. I think this comes not from a lack of but an excess of shame which builds a desire to avoid doing anything that might express a recognition that we acted improperly. Breaking the cycle of suppressing the recognition of error and avoiding correction by sublimating shame into the sequence of guilt-repentance-restitution-forgiveness is the key to actually moving forward.

Ares Olympus said...
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